Friday, 7 February 2014

Anecdote Saturday - RMS Empress of Ireland

RMS Empress of Ireland designed by Francis Elgar and built by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co, Govan near Glasgow (1905), had a gross tonnage of 14 191 and was 100 ft longer than the Waratah (570 ft). Twin steam engines and screws provided her with an average speed of 18 knots, which was fast and combined with reliability, made her a steamer of choice for the Atlantic crossing.

The Empress of Ireland cost a staggering 375 000 pounds to build and was designed to carry 1580 passengers. However, this was adjusted when she was launched and increased to  a total of 1915 - 310 first class, 468 second class, 494 third class, 270 fourth class and 373 crew. The Empress of Ireland along with her sister ship the Empress of Britain were commissioned by Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP) for the route between Liverpool and Quebec.

Her commodore Henry George Kendall had recently been promoted to Captain and was commanding his first voyage along the St Lawrence Seaway. He was keen to prove himself with a respectable Atlantic crossing time. In the early hours of 29 May, 1914, after 95 trans-Atlantic crossings, in heavy fog, the Empress of Ireland collided with the Norwegian collier, SS Storstad. At the time she was carrying 1477 passengers and crew. Horrifyingly, she turned over and sank within 14 minutes taking with her 1012 souls (840 passengers and 172 crew).

This is the worst peacetime disaster in Canadian maritime history. It is one of the quirks of history that her story is virtually unknown compared with that of the Titanic, two years prior. Ironically and tragically both vessels had sighted the other's masthead lights and were thus aware of the other's presence in the shipping lane.

Initially the Storstad was starboard of the Empress of Ireland, a few miles distant. The weather was clear and gave both vessels ample opportunity to make course adjustments to avoid a collision. But a dense fog descended over the steamers and despite repeated fog whistles blown by both ships, the Starstad ploughed into the Empress of Ireland's starboard side (02:00 local time).

The Storstad sustained damage to her bow but did not founder. The Empress of Ireland on the other hand listed quickly taking on significant volumes of water through open port holes, some of which were only a few feet above the water line. Those passengers on upper decks were given an opportunity to get to the boat deck, but those asleep lower down were drowned before they could react.

The list was so severe that the launch of lifeboats was hampered. She rolled over on her side flinging many of the passengers on the boat deck into the freezing St Lawrence. 14 minutes after the collision the Empress of Ireland's stern rose out of the water signalling her final death throw before disappearing forever. 465 people survived, 4 of whom were children (134 lost) and 41, women (269 lost).

Her captain, Kendall survived.  He was on the bridge ordering lifeboats when flung into the water by the lurching, dying steamer. He managed to scramble onto a floating wooden grate and from there onto a small lifeboat. He was instrumental in rescuing a number of people from the freezing waters.

Confusion prevailed both in the press and the Inquiry as to which vessel was to blame. Both captains had misread the light signals from the mastheads. The tragic loss of life came down to three factors: the position of the Storstad on impact; failure to close watertight doors on the Empress of Ireland and the open port holes. Maritime 'Safety of Life at Sea' regulations of the time clearly stipulated that all portholes should be closed and secured before the vessel departed port.

An emergency message was sent from the Empress of Ireland using the Marconi set and this was picked up by two steamers, the Eureka and Lady Evelyn. The damaged Storstad was the first vessel to pick up survivors, later assisted by the Eureka and Lady Evelyn. Among those lost in the tragedy were the English dramatist and novelist Laurence Irving and explorer Henry Seton Karr. The Storstad's Chief Officer Alfred Toftenes, who was commanding the Storstad at the time faded into obscurity, dying in New York in 1918.

Captain Kendall placed the blame firmly on Storstad for the collision. Famously, the first words he said to Storstad's captain after the sinking were,

"You have sunk my ship!".

After all evidence at the Inquiry was weighed up a conclusion was drawn that the Storstad ported her helm and changed course, bringing about the collision, and in addition, Toftenes failed to call his Captain (Andersen) when the fog descended. An inquiry launched by Norwegians disagreed with the official verdict and cleared Storstad′s crew of all responsibility. Captain Kendall left one detail out of his account.  He was determined to keep his company's advertised speed of the crossing and avoided what in his opinion was a time wasting manoeuvre to avoid the Storstad.

Captain Andersen was called to the bridge he saw the Empress of Ireland looming in the fog and seeing both port and starboard masthead lights during its manoeuvre, assumed that she was passing on the opposite side. He ordered the Storstad to alter course to starboard to avoid collision, instead heading directly for her at a right angle. The collision had two direct consequences:

Bow design was changed.  The reverse slanting bow was deadly in collision of this nature. It was like 'driving a chisel into tin'. Bows became raked with the top of the prow forward.

Forward and aft longitudinal bulkheads separating the watertight compartments trapped flooded water between them causing the Empress of Ireland to list dangerously.

Naval architects Reid and Hovgaard, as a result of this collision, proposed that longitudinal subdivisions were hazardous in ship collisions. Salvage operations recovered 318 bags of mail and 212 bars of silver from the sunken Empress of Ireland.


Graham Clayton said...

"You have sunk my ship!".

Reminds me of David Beatty'c comment during the Battle of Jutland in 1916:

"There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today"

andrew van rensburg said...

Yes, :)